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There’s More to a Seedling Sale Than Selling Seedlings

By Roger BurnsideBurnside headshot.jpg

Since the mid-1970s, the Alaska State Society’s Cook Inlet Chapter (CISAF) has promoted and supported an annual tree seedling fundraiser. [See the Western Forester summer 2010 issue for additional sale background.] Over the last 10 years, we have made a number of administrative changes that resulted in each year’s sale being more successful than the last.

In 2010, the creation of a dedicated webpage and email account, social media advertising, and mass emails of sale updates has significantly enhanced annual sales. Seedling sales were relatively small in the early years, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand sold annually. Now, from 2007 to 2020, annual sales have ranged from 11,000 to 23,000 seedlings.

We significantly modified the annual sale to provide a preordering process for purchasing and reserving seedlings several months prior to the traditional spring public sale in May. The process is simply creating a sale webpage, followed by a mass email to previous seedling purchasers and sale supporters, followed by periodic electronic updates and reminders, and lastly the distribution of paid orders at a few convenient venues along the Alaska road system. Invariably, sale notices are forwarded to other groups, generally unknown to us at the time, which results in additional preorders and additions to our growing master email list. Advertising costs for the annual fundraiser are now almost nonexistent since most advertising is via email or social media.

Yet there have been growing pains. Some have provided short-term challenges while others have generated significant benefits for future modifications of the seedling production and sale process. As I have generally tried to envision the overall process, where there is a challenge, one only needs to look for an opportunity. Foresters will continue to find a way to get the job done despite periodic blips and adversities that affect the overall process. Let me explain:

Cook Inlet Ch Annual Seedlings Volume Graph.png
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROGER BURNSIDE
Overall, the annual volume of seedlings sold has increased. Sales have
lagged for some years, primarily due to challenges with estimating supply
and demand for individual species and future seedling interest from larger
purchasers. We often run out of seedlings late in the three-month online
sale. Future plans are to build a seedling inventory large enough to absorb
year-to-year market fluctuations.

Cultivating a stable seedling source

For almost four decades, CISAF’s main seedling supplier was a large Canadian conglomerate with seedling production nurseries spread across Canada and Lower 48 states. In late 2016, our Canadian supplier dropped CISAF and a number of its smaller clients who ordered less than 80,000 tree seedlings annually. As an example, the Alaska Division of Forestry (AKDOF), with annual reforestation needs of 30,000-50,000 native tree seedlings, was summarily dropped from their rolls; AKDOF currently uses other Canadian nurseries to source tree seedlings for reforestation on state timber sales.

This caused a mad scramble for CISAF to find another nursery with a seedling inventory available for an early spring 2017 delivery. The chapter prevailed, locating a Minnesota nursery that would ship to Alaska, albeit after a long back-and-forth dialogue to explain how to ship seedlings over 3,500 miles, but at a significant uptick in overall cost due to shipping.

Through a bit of luck and another potential opportunity, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Agriculture’s (DOA) Plant Material Center (PMC) decided it would be beneficial to resume growing local tree seedlings after 30 plus years of state and federal agencies using outside seedling nurseries for statutory-required reforestation, land reclamation, and other revegetation mandates.

Currently, CISAF is in the third year of a three- to five-year plan to develop an ongoing tree seedling cooperative with the PMC. Production expenses are paid by the chapter as needed and include sowing media, quality seed acquisitions, bundling supplies and other miscellaneous seedling maintenance costs. There are even equipment costs to automate the filling of sowing blocks and an automated point-sower machine.

Alaska’s shorter growing season has provided a few challenges for producing mature seedlings of species that require a longer growth period, such as native white spruce and some pine species. Generally, commercial tree seed sown in an Alaska greenhouse in early spring, with some additional maintenance care with precise watering and limited fertilization, can produce a quality, mature seedling by spring of the following year. Spruce and some pine seed take a bit longer, given that precise sowing, greenhouse temp/watering, and overwintering cooler regimes are followed, which is generally a 16 plus month process. The 2018 and 2019 sales required an additional email campaign for those purchasers ordering spruce, plus mobilizing chapter volunteers for additional seedling bundling and distribution duties in late summer.

CISAF volunteers.jpg
The Seedling Sale spans two days and 19,000 seedlings being bundled in
preparation for being handed out. CISAF volunteers are the backbone of
the sale, and 2020’s day 2 volunteers included: (L-R) Mitch Michaud, Beth
Schulz, Ken Winterberger, Rusty Foreaker (PMC greenhouse manager),
Roger Burnside, and Taya Much. CISAF members who volunteered but are
not shown were Trevor Dobell-Carlsson, Bob Gorman, Jim LaBau, and
Sue Rodman.

Legislation and pandemic setbacks

Yet growing seedlings is not the only challenge CISAF must adjust to. In 2019, the Alaska legislature presented a budget that the Governor decided to cut by line-item vetoes of various programs, including natural resources agencies. Virtually the entire operating budget of the DOA was vetoed, which forced the entire division and a significant portion of the PMC’s staff to be laid off and multiple operating programs cut, respectively. Quick action by CISAF enabled a short-term rehire of the PMC’s greenhouse manager to maintain the 23,000-seedling crop in the PMC’s sole operating greenhouse for 45 days until the legislature convinced the Governor that the DOA’s budget was essential to the Alaska public.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a minor blip in the normal seedling sale operations, primarily due to a one-month delay in the main seedling distribution to ensure that the sale volunteers’ bundling of seedlings and purchasers’ pickup of paid seedling orders in late June could be done safely. An unexpected benefit of these delays was the additional month of growing time to provide additional stem and root growth for the entire seedling crop negating the need for an additional spruce seedling distribution.

What’s the future?

The chapter continues to be challenged by the uncertainty of the local tree seedling market to sow tens of thousands of seedlings and the time-consuming efforts to mount a sufficient volunteer force to assist the PMC with various seedling production activities, which include seed sowing, crop maintenance, seedling bundling, and species sorting for delivery to the distribution locations.

Net tree sale profits are still used to further the local chapter’s mission to educate the public about the benefits and value of trees, provide leadership development of chapter leaders and students by supporting attendance at state society annual meetings, leadership workshops, and the national convention. Excess profits have been pooled with the AK State Society’s brokerage investment account for a longer-term growth strategy to support CISAF’s mission.

Options to solidify CISAF’s annual tree seedling sale will be discussed by the PMC and CISAF in the near future. A formal agreement with the PMC for ongoing operations is needed to ensure that sowing volumes are adequate to fulfill fluctuations in market demand. We may engage future discussion with the state society to develop a statewide or several chapter structure to the ongoing seedling sale project. Also, the growing listserv of seedling purchasers and supporters could be mined to increase the pool of potential volunteers to support seedling production and distribution activities as sale volume increases. With declining SAF membership, these options are almost a certainty to be explored. Challenges or opportunities? Who knows!

Roger Burnside, coordinator of the annual Cook Inlet Chapter tree seedling sale, also serves as chapter treasurer and Alaska SAF’s Investment Committee chair. A forest entomologist by training, from 1990-2013, he managed the Forest Health Protection Program for the Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry out of Anchorage, officially retiring from State service in 2014. Roger is an SAF Fellow and has been an Alaska SAF member since 1990.

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